A recent article in The Atlantic is titled, “Why Won’t Trump Call Out Radical White Terrorism?” Another from Fortune states, “The Charlottesville Car Attack Was Terrorism. It’s Dangerous to Call It Anything Else.” Even Jeff Sessions said, “It (Charlottesville) does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute.”   

Repeatedly over the week after the Charlottesville attack, where white supremacists came to protest the removal of a Confederate statue that eventually led to violence, Republican and Democratic politicians were quick to condemn the “both sides” narrative by President Donald Trump during his press conference. Some minds were especially angry that he couldn’t condemn domestic terrorism. Across the spectrum, these attacks were seen as terrorism, but most were baffled by the fact that others were unable to condemn the acts immediately. Even among those who eventually did see James Alex Fields Jr. drive into the crowd of counterprotesters, it still took even longer to realize that in fact, this was an act of terror.

Domestic terrorism isn’t new. It occurred early in our nation’s history, and even as recently as Aug. 6, when writer Wajahat Ali tweeted: “A Minnesota mosque was bombed. That’s terrorism. You won’t see it on the headline news. It’s not trending. Wonder why.” This lack of a clear definition of terrorism is more common than we might think, but instead of being dumbfounded and irate on this lack of action against domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, I stepped back and began to ask questions. Moreover, I asked why we struggle with defining domestic terrorism, be it perpetuated by white supremacy or other hate groups. In my introspection, I found issues of legal debate. But more importantly, I think that there is a nuance that we seem to be missing in our collective analysis of our legal system and we aren’t delving into a psychological issue in America’s conscience.

In the Patriot Act, domestic terrorism is defined as any act “dangerous to human life” or actions that “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

This language seems to obviously describe the behavior of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, but I think this phrasing is a bit broad. Now I know many people would say otherwise, but uniquely, there is noticeably not a specific group being targeted in this language. With regards to international terrorism, this is defined significantly clearer. In the wake of 9/11, a joint resolution, titled the “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” came into effect. It reads that the “President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

We know what groups (al-Qaida and the Taliban) and individuals (Osama bin Laden) perpetrated the attacks on 9/11. We understand the actions and ideologies that those entities support. And we are quick to define it in our legal code. Though the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” has broad language as well, this glaringly shows we have an issue recognizing, discussing and naming domestic terrorism, be it white supremacists or any other hate group.

More importantly, domestic terrorism is actually not a crime in the United States. Why? Because domestic terrorism as a charge does not exist. Almost always, such acts are charged as hate crimes, which in most states are felonies. However, this furthers the issue that we can’t define domestic terrorism because it isn’t technically a crime in the first place — it’s never specifically stated as such. Nonetheless, these issues in our legal code I think guide us to the real issue. This broad language is the byproduct of a deeper problem, and we as humans are not cognizant enough to recognize this flaw.

Humans, on a psychological basis, love to mentally categorize. It is how our memory works. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neuroendocrinologist, explains that putting explanations, facts and opinions into clean, established boxes has advantages: We can remember the content of those explanations and opinions.  

But as humans, we struggle with realizing that those “walls” of categorization are highly arbitrary. Once some arbitrary boundary exists, we often become enamored with its importance, impeding our ability to question, contemplate, debate and challenge those explanations. This mental processing does not exclude our collective American conscience. It is much easier to build these capricious mental walls externally, but examining our internal walls can be unpleasant. This is exactly the root of the issue.

The “Authorization for Use of Military Force” clause describes this ability to “externally define” quite well. When there is an enemy, often across an ocean and a continent, the boundaries are clear. It’s us versus them. Borders aren’t necessarily arbitrary, but the belief that human psychology varies vastly across countries is, in my view, false. When confronted with issues about our own well-being, too often we can’t seem to describe our problems. This is due to the fact that we put boundaries around our nation’s conscience so as to insulate its importance, rendering our ability for a collective introspection divisive and combative. It is almost as if we, as a country, act as one person. It’s much easier to notice the flaws and positives around us (the United States vs. the world), but requiring us to question our own individual “greatness” is far more arduous.

When defining the actions against a mosque in the United States, or the attack in Charlottesville, these despicable events occur within our “walls.” When senators and representatives from both sides commented that Trump easily utters the words “radical Islamic terror” but struggles to declare domestic terrorism, I know he isn’t alone. Many struggle with these comments, mostly due to the fact that when recognizing a flaw in the societal conscience, it is tedious and painful. We can’t think about why domestic terrorism charges don’t exist, but international terrorism charges do. We can’t analyze why it’s easy to “preach” on terrorism abroad, but not internally. Only when we, as a nation, can mutually recognize our illogical boundary, can we define white supremacy as a terrorist group, in addition to being a group simply of hate.

David Kamper can be reached at dgkamper@umich.edu.

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